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Unpresidented

Arun Kapil

The one thing everyone can agree on is that the outcome of the second round of the French legislative elections was inédit, unprecedented. It was utterly unexpected, too. Emmanuel Macron had every reason to believe after his re-election on 24 April that the legislative ballot would conform to precedent, with the presidential alliance coasting to victory.

Since the introduction of the five-year presidential term in 2002 and the alignment of the electoral calendars, the freshly elected head of state has been all but guaranteed a comfortable legislative majority. Parliamentary elections became an afterthought to the all-important presidential contest, reflected in the ever increasing abstention rate, which reached a historic 52.5 per cent in the first round this year on 12 June.

In 2017, the party (or ‘party’) that Macron had created ex nihilo the previous year, La République en Marche (LREM) – whose parliamentary candidates were third-tier defectors from the Parti Socialiste (PS) and Les Républicains (LR), along with political novices no one had heard of – won 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.

This year LREM led an electoral alliance, called Ensemble!, including François Bayrou’s centrist Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) and former prime minister Édouard Philippe’s centre-right Horizons. Polls early in the campaign projected an absolute majority for Ensemble! (289 seats or more), but it became clear in the final three weeks that it could fall short, and by as many as 25 seats.

There seemed to be two possible outcomes: either a narrow majority for Ensemble! would mean Bayrou and Philippe – both political heavyweights – holding considerable sway in what would in effect be a coalition government; or failing to cross the threshold of 289 would oblige Macron to contain his Bonapartist instincts and seek support from the opposition, the logical party being LR, the erstwhile pillar of the French right. Complicated but doable.

But in a result projected by not a single poll, Ensemble! won only 245 seats on Sunday: 44 short of a majority. Never before in the 64-year history of the Fifth Republic has a newly (re)elected president been deprived of a legislative majority to this degree. It’s a debacle for Macron, whose most senior lieutenants in the National Assembly, the former interior minister Christophe Castaner and the Assembly president Richard Ferrand, were defeated in their constituencies.

Macron apparently forgot that his landslide in April owed more to a repudiation of his opponent than an affirmative vote for him. He waited until the third week of May before appointing a new prime minister and cabinet, which then proceeded to do almost no campaigning (in part perhaps because it had no programme to run on). Macron pulled a proposal out of a hat to fix the democratic deficit but, given the solitary, vertical manner in which he exercises power, it fell flat and was forgotten within days.

The president gave voters no good reason to accord Ensemble! a majority, and the vaporous LREM was even less capable of doing so. With Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (RN) looking to pose no threat – the two-round single-member constituency electoral system has always been unfavourable to the extreme right – Macron and his camp aimed their fire at Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (NUPES), the electoral pact he forged in May, which the macronistes demagogically red-baited as an extreme left-wing mirror image of the extreme right-wing RN.

LR won 61 seats, but the party president, Christian Jacob, yesterday ruled out a coalition deal with the macronistes. There has been speculation that Macron could reach out to moderates in the NUPES, i.e. the PS and Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV), since under the NUPES deal, which otherwise heavily favoured Mélenchon’s radical left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI), the parties will sit separately in parliament. The PS, EELV and Communists (PCF) may have negotiated with Mélenchon under duress – there was no other way to save their electoral skins – but it’s inconceivable that any of them would be tempted to break ranks and cut a deal with Macron.

The NUPES ended up with 131 seats, fewer than the lowest end of pollster projections, and even if some of them were contemplating collaboration with Macron they wouldn’t be numerous enough to be of use to him. Mélenchon’s polarising persona – his disapproval rating has been over 60 per cent for the past five years – was clearly a handicap in the second round of the election. That said, LFI will be sending some 75 deputies to the National Assembly, the most for the radical left since the PCF’s heyday in the 1970s. And despite Mélenchon’s caudillo-like domination of his party, LFI has several high-profile, media savvy personalities, who will be an outspoken opposition force in the Palais Bourbon.

All the polls predicted that LFI would be the leading opposition party, but that role will now – and this is the most stunning outcome of the election – fall to Le Pen’s RN, which won 89 seats, a historic high for the party of the extreme right. Absolutely no one saw this coming, least of all Le Pen herself, who set much more modest objectives and barely campaigned until the final two weeks. The most generous projections had the party taking fifty to sixty seats. But in the event the RN, running on anti-Macron anger, swept constituencies not only across its traditional strongholds in the northeast and along the Mediterranean, but also in parts of the country where it has had shallower roots.

In the second round of the presidential election, enough of Mélenchon’s supporters turned out for Macron to keep Le Pen out of the Elysée. But it seems that they didn’t repeat the favour in the legislatives, and LREM voters whose candidates were eliminated in the first round didn’t repay it. Their abstentions helped open the door to the RN.

Among the consequences of the RN’s success is that it will very possibly chair the National Assembly’s all-important finance commission and receive public funding that will enable the heavily-indebted party to expunge its debts, which includes a 2014 loan of €9 million from a Russian bank.

Will France descend into political instability, or even become ungovernable? Some observers and pundits are suggesting as much. Whatever happens, the life of the French parliament – another precedent – is going to get very interesting.


Comments

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  • 22 June 2022 at 1:50pm
    jcoprario says:
    "Mélenchon’s polarising persona – his disapproval rating has been over 60 per cent for the past five years – was clearly a handicap in the second round of the election. That said, LFI will be sending some 75 deputies to the National Assembly, the most for the radical left since the PCF’s heyday in the 1970s."

    Is there any evidence to support the first sentence or is it merely twaddle, as the second sentence would seem to suggest?

  • 22 June 2022 at 5:14pm
    Daniel Ungar says:
    Not at all twaddle. There were posters all over Paris , and presumably the rest of France, featuring his face and "Mélenchon for Prime Minister", and explaining that, by voting for whoever the local candidate of the NUPES happened to be, one was voting for him. Enough to put lots of voters off, present company included.

    • 22 June 2022 at 6:59pm
      jcoprario says: @ Daniel Ungar
      "That said, LFI will be sending some 75 deputies to the National Assembly, the most for the radical left since the PCF’s heyday in the 1970s."

  • 22 June 2022 at 8:26pm
    Thomas Smith says:
    The results are surely roughly what should have been expected with a divided electorate, a strong centre party, and the two-round voting system. If it can get into the 2nd round in a constituency, the centre picks up votes from the extreme that has been excluded, and so ends up somewhat over-represented. In this case, Macron had 28% of first round votes in the presidential poll, and won 42% of seats in the legislatives. The corresponding statistics for the left (NUPES) parties were 31% of 1st round votes and 23% of seats, and for the RN, 23% of votes and 15% of seats.

    For me, the surprising election was the 2017 legislatives when Macron won only 24% of the first round presidential votes, but very many voters abandoned their first choice party in the legislatives to give En Marche 60% of the seats. Why? It was understandable that Le Pen, with
    21% of first round votes in the 2017 presidential race and hardly any legislative seats considered herself hard-done by the lack of proportionality (an interesting contrast with the effect of non-proportionality in the UK, which seems to create a permanent far-right majority).

    This time, the left avoided a complete rout by setting up NUPES as an electoral alliance. Melanchon presenting it as his personal vehicle didn't help, but under-representation in terms of seats was baked in by the voting system. On the right, the collapse of the Republicains
    in the main presidential poll, partly to losing votes to its left (Macron) and partly to its right (Le Pen), seems to be reflected in the results of the legislatives which are much closer to the preferences displayed in the 1st round presidential results than were those of 2017.

    • 22 June 2022 at 10:39pm
      jcoprario says: @ Thomas Smith
      "This time, the left avoided a complete rout by setting up NUPES as an electoral alliance. Melanchon presenting it as his personal vehicle didn't help, but under-representation in terms of seats was baked in by the voting system." that pesky Melenchon again, not helping...

    • 23 June 2022 at 11:51am
      MattG says: @ Thomas Smith
      Do you have a link to a decent analysis of voter movement?

      My current suspicion is that in LREM v RN constituencies the left voted RN in second round. Whereas in constituencies where RN was eliminated in first round the right didn't return the favour.

      2017 seems to have been different in as much as voters did not move right across the spectrum which favours the centre.

    • 23 June 2022 at 9:10pm
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ MattG
      https://twitter.com/MichaelKillian1/status/1540064507963314177?s=20&t=SYzfO0jF5FOQqY2HgNlelg

  • 23 June 2022 at 4:04pm
    XopherO says:
    Yes, Melenchon 'I will be PM' smacked somewhat of Neil Kinnock's hubris in 1991. and generally the PS loathes him. Left voting right is not particularly unusual - I know of PCF voters back in the 80s who switched to Le Pen father! The real issue now is that LFI did not gain enough seats - came third behind RN. So RN is the official opposition and as in the UK that brings in cash and political positions. Another reason why Le Pen has decided to drop party leadership to head up RN in the Assembly. The voting system may not favour the left, but Nupes was predicted to get 150 - 200 seats in the second round - they had nearly 400 candidates go through - and RN was predicted to get 20 - 40. Macron is now so despised by the other parties he will be unable to govern without huge concessions. In an effort to win a majority he dropped the policy of retirement at 65 completely before the second round anyway. The big winner on the left was LFI with 72 (17 before) then the greens with 23 (1) then the PCF 12 (10). The loser was the PS 26 (30). Would the PS pull out of any future alliance?- in a few constituencies the PS fielded a candidate against Nupes anyway. Probably.

    • 23 June 2022 at 9:20pm
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ XopherO
      Macron needs only about 35 (they already have got about 10 commitments) out of 159 (LR + some Left) who are neither Far Right RN or loony Left LFI. Macron has 42% of seats in AN; meanwhile SPD and PSOE have far less % of seats in their assemblies. PM Borne will do a good job and Macron can concentrate on Europe where is next job will be from 2027.

    • 24 June 2022 at 9:38am
      XopherO says: @ Tanvyeboyo
      As I said, he can only remain by big concessions whether to left or right. There is no way he can simply sail on autocratically. The Assembly will be a battle ground for a change and not the mute forelock tuggers he made it. The idea of Borne doing a 'good job' is wishful thinking, she has hardly excelled so far, and come in for a lot of criticism about her competence to be PM rather than a bureaucrat.

  • 25 June 2022 at 2:25pm
    roger gathmann says:
    It is funny that anglophone commentors, who generally love Macron as the "Blair" of France and hate the Caudillo - hint hint - Melenchon are so blinded that they cant see figures right. NUPES has 149 seats - gee, pretty good for a figure who somehow, loathed as he is by all the good people in the 8ieme arrondissement in Paris, brought into being both the coalition and its pretty clear success. Contrast this for a moment with Anne Hidalgo's PS party, which accrued a big 2 percent in the presidential. I have to swallow the pro-Macron pov when I read the Anglophone commentary - Arthur Goldhammer is even worse - but simple figures really should be easy to do.

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